Recently we heard about an impressive blended learning model being implemented in the Derry Cooperative School District in Derry, New Hampshire, and we reached out to the district’s superintendent, Dr. Laura Nelson, to learn more.
Laura connected us with Stephanie Burke, an 8th grade science teacher who just won a Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching. Stephanie in turn connected us with Holly Whitney, who taught 6-8th grade computers and will be teaching 7th grade math for the first time this year, and who was the original catalyst for the shift to using technology in the classroom.
The result of these conversations is this in-depth article about blended learning, which we think will be useful both for those considering flipping their classroom, and for those who have already gotten started.
If you’d like concrete, actionable tips on how to start your own blended learning program, please scroll to the “8 Tips for Flipping Your Classroom” at the bottom of this article.
Funding technology in Derry.
One challenge districts face in trying to implement blended learning programs are the potentially complicated logistics involved in first identifying, and then funding, the devices needed. How do you know you picked the right hardware until you try it out? And how do you know which software is a good fit for your teachers and students?
Superintendent Nelson explained that Derry educators are fortunate to be supported by a local foundation called the 21st-Century Learning Community Foundation, which provides grants for seed money to teachers to help them integrate technology into schools in new ways. Once teachers have thoroughly vetted the technology supported by the grants through pilots, the district can make a decision about whether to commit financially to the resource, essentially allowing for a “try-before-you” buy model for adopting education technology.
The foundation provides two different types of grants to teachers in Derry. There’s the “Game changer”, which provides up to $25,000 for up to 2 school years, and then there are mini-grants, which provide up to $5,000 for technology.
Superintendent Nelson mentioned that, in addition to the blended learning program that is the focus of this article, another example of a recent use of these 21st Century Grants was for iPads and apps that school counselors are using to help students reduce anxiety (which we thought was so neat we wanted to mention it here!).
Blended learning in Derry—How it began.
Teachers can apply as a group to receive a larger “Game Changer” grant, which was the route Holly Whitney (8th grade computer science and math), Stephanie Burke (8th grade science), and Angela Barber (6th grade science) took when they set out to create their new blended learning program.
Through the 21st Century Grant, the three teachers bought two class sets of Chromebooks; a Macbook Pro for Stephanie; a Wacom tablet you can write on; a microphone; and a camera. However, Stephanie says that now that she has a few years of experience teaching in a flipped classroom, she thinks it could be done without the Chromebooks.
Holly says that, “One of the biggest challenges in teaching middle school is answering the question ‘How do you get homework done?’” Thinking through creative solutions to this challenge was the jumping off point for the creation of the blended learning program, and the starting point for the three teachers when they were creating their grant proposal. To Holly, who teaches and has a background in computer science, a potential solution seemed obvious: Teachers needed to flip the classroom.
As you may know, flipping the classroom means having students do homework in class, and do classwork at home. With this approach, students would be viewing lectures on their own—work that doesn’t necessarily require collaboration or one-on-one support—and then would do more focused work on their own or in groups in class.
Stephanie says that, with her 8th grade science students, this was not an overnight transition. But the end result is that now, two years later, “There is no ‘front of my room, no teacher desk’—if you need me, I’m sitting in with the kids. I see my role now as much more of a coach or mentor,” as opposed to the traditional idea of a teacher standing at the front of the room, talking while students listen and take notes.
The key to getting started was videos. The videos provide the instructional foundation, where key concepts or ideas are introduced, and then class time provides a space where students can apply those concepts—can get their hands dirty, and really apply their minds.
Stephanie says that, though she committed to a fully flipped model out of the gate, she didn’t realize how quickly and radically this would change her classroom. “Initially,” she says, “I thought it would be just a nice tool—I didn’t anticipate it would change everything. My classroom is 180 degrees different now from what it was before.”
Every year things have grown organically and naturally with how her students use technology. One evolution has been the growth of Project Based Learning (PBL), where students who are more independent are given a question, such as “Should we invest more money in research in space?” or “Pick 3 places on Earth and say why you think they’re the safest”, and then allowed to dive in.
Inevitably these questions will lead to scientific study, which can then be addressed through the use of videos and other resources, which are now sought out by students in an applied context instead of studied because they are on a list of required concepts. This approach makes the material covered—and the learning that results—much more meaningful for students.
For the teachers I spoke with, they weren’t necessarily excited about a specific technology—though of course everyone has their favorites—but more about the impact using this approach has had on their students. The goal, as everyone I spoke to at Derry emphasized, has always been to provide more close support for every single student, and technology is simply a tool to help teachers achieve this goal.
The first year, Angela decided to assign videos for homework and continue to teach in a more traditional lecture style; Stephanie went “fully flipped”, assigning videos for homework and doing homework-type activities in class; and Holly, who will be teaching math for the first time this year, says that she plans to get her feet wet with a traditional approach, and then slowly incorporate technology as she grows more comfortable with the new material she’ll be teaching.
The goal is to provide more support for the individual student. The teachers emphasized there is no perfect model when it comes to blended learning—each teacher needs to find the path for incorporating technology into the classroom that works best for him or her.
How does it work?
Stephanie has a fully flipped classroom, where students watch videos for homework, and then use class time to work on targeted skill sets. On a typical day students will arrive, check out the Task Chart, and see what they each have on deck for the day. Some kids may have a quiz, others may be in a group where they’ll be studying a certain scientific concept, and others may elect to go back and study a concept they didn’t quite get the first time around.
At the beginning of class, and also if she’s hearing a lot of students asking the same question about a topic, Stephanie will ask everyone to pause for a moment while she takes a few minutes to explain something—she calls this her “sage on a stage” time—but then students will return to doing more personalized work. This asynchronous model, where every student is working on something different and there is no central activity the entire class is doing together, means that each student works on the material he or she needs to cover in order to move forward with their own personal learning.
But—and just as importantly—it means that students are taking ownership of their learning. Instead of continuing from one step to the next in the curriculum, students have the responsibility to be honest with themselves if they didn’t understand something and need to work on it more—or to push forward if they’ve mastered something. This means students are learning science and learning how to make informed decisions about their own needs. What a powerful way to learn!
Here are 8 tips to help you flip your classroom:
1. Use videos. Whether you make them or find them from other sources, everyone I spoke with said that videos are foundational to how they’ve flipped the classroom.
Tips on making videos:
→Though it had been recommended, teachers found they didn’t need a separate video input camera to film them and could just use the camera and microphone on their laptop (a Macbook) .
→The most important thing to have is decent video-editing software. Camtasia is a good one, and only costs $100. Zaption is also a great, free tool to help you create high quality videos.
→Stephanie recommends one minute per grade level, and that in general the shorter the video the better. Her videos for her 8th grade science students are 5-6 minutes. Be succinct, and introduce one theory or concept at a time.
→Recommended channels for high quality videos:
2. Ask students for feedback. Be honest with them. Say, “I’m trying something new, and I could really use your feedback”—since you’re asking kids to be more empowered and make academic risks, they enjoy it when you do are honest about the risks you’re taking with the blended adventure.
3. Don’t forget to include maintenance costs in your tech budget. It can be easy to overlook the costs needed to upkeep and replace broken hardware. Make sure to build this into your edtech/blended budget, especially if you are applying for a grant, because school funds can’t be counted on to help.
4. Know what you want. When using tech, make sure you have a firm idea of what you want to do. Really have a good sense of what hardware you want to use (and even software, too), and what you want to use it to do, before you buy it.
5. Google Classroom has a whole suite of tools that can help. The tools work nicely together, and can be really helpful for bringing technology seamlessly into the room.
6. Funding doesn’t have to be an obstacle. Stephanie emphasized that a blended model could be done without having a device for every student while they’re in the classroom. Almost all students have some kind of device at home for viewing videos at home—if you can start with covering key concepts by having students view videos at home, then use class time to work on more personalized material, you’re already on your way to having a successful flipped classroom.
For students who didn’t have a device at home for streaming, she burned them DVDs which they could watch. For videos, you can make your own videos on a laptop and post them to YouTube, or use videos from one of the sites listed above.
7. Use Twitter to create or join an existing Professional Learning Community (PLC). The Flipped Class chat, which Stephanie is part of, happens every Monday nights at 8 EST—join in with the hashtag #flipclass.
8. Need funding? Check out this list of grants and crowdfunding sites we created, and keep in mind that ESEA Title I, II, III, IDEA, and other formula grants can be used to fund the transition to digital learning. Also, check out this letter from the federal Office of Education Technology about how to use federal funds to pay for technology.
Write a comment! What do you do to implement blended learning in your class?